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Megaesophagus in Dogs

Megaesophagus is the most common cause for regurgitation in the dog. Regurgitation results from the inability of the esophagus to contract properly and propagate the food down to the stomach. As a result, the ingested food and/or liquid remains in the esophagus, for anywhere from minutes to hours to days. With the food not reaching the stomach to cause the sensation of being full, the dog will continue to eat. As a result, the esophagus often enlarges as it dilates greatly with food, hence the name of the disease. The majority of cases of canine megaesophagus have no apparent cause, and are therefore given the name, idiopathic megaesophagus. A minority of cases are caused secondary to underyling disease, namely hypothyroidism or mysthenia gravis, and are thus called acquired secondary megaesophagus.

A very rare congenital disease, called a vascular ring anomaly is also possible, but these are usually seen only in very young puppies. The typical age of onset of canine megaesophagus is 7 – 15 years of age according to many sources, but I have not uncommonly seen it in young dogs 1- 5 years of age. I have heard of cases of canine idiopathic megaesophagus in puppies, but have not personally seen any such cases. Clinical signs of megaesophagus will vary depending on severity and may include: regurgitation that may begin minutes to several hours after eating or drinking, excessive salivation, mild to moderate weight loss, coughing, or wheezes. Some affected dogs present with pneumonia, secondary to aspiration of regurgitated contents. This is perhaps the most dangerous consequence of the disease.

The diagnostic work-up for megaesphagus begins with chest x-rays. The x-rays may show the esophagus dilated with food and will determine whether or not there is secondary aspiration pnuemonia. In some cases, the nature of the ingested material does not allow for visualization of a dilated esophagus. If the history fits mega-esophagus, but a dilated esophagus is not seen on routine x-rays, then a contrast study can be performed, where prior to the x-ray, a radio-opaque liquid is swallowed. Since the liquid will show brightly on the x-ray, the integrity and shape of the esophagus will be clearly visualized.

Once it is clearly established that a patient indeed has canine megaesophagus, then the dog must be stablized, and any secondary aspiration pneumonia treated. In addition, it is necessary to differentiate between idiopathic and secondary acquired megaesophagus. A routine profile should be run, constisting of a CBC, chemistry, and urinalysis. In addition, a thyroid profile should be run (TSH, T4, free T4), as well as a test for myesthenia gravis (acetyl choline receptor antibody test).

If the megaesophagus is ultimately acquired secondary, then the primary disease should be treated. Please refer to our Diseases A-Z page provided for more information regarding the treatment of hypothyroidism or myesthenia gravis.

In cases where it is determined that the patient has idiopathic canine megaesophagus, that is, megaesophagus of unknown origin, then husbandry becomes the primary focus in managing the disease. Pro-gastrointestinal motility drugs, such as cisapride and metoclopramide have been used to attempt to incrcease esophageal tone, with little to no success in most cases. I have personally had no success using these drugs to manage the disease.

The main thrust of husbandry management of canine megaesophagus is feeding and watering from elevated dishes. By elevating the food and water, gravity helps to facilitate the passage of food from the esophagus to the stomach. The dishes should be elevated to a height where the dog can just barely reach the bowls, making certain that the dog really has to extend the neck to eat or drink.

In severe cases of canine megaesophagus, even this type of feeding is not enough to prevent chronic regurgitation. For these patients, one can try feeding and watering with dishes placed on top of a step ladder, high enough that the dog has to place the paws on the step ladder in order to reach the food. This serves to orient, not just the neck, but the dog’s entire body in a vertical position to eat and drink from. If the case is so severe that even this does not work, one can obtain special blueprints to construct a special “megaesophagus chair” that the dog can be trained to eat from. I do not have any such blueprints, but clients of mine have found them, among other very helpful tips on a megaesophagus online support group.

As far as what type of food to feed, dry food is out of the question. A high calorie, high protien canned food (such as a goodcanned puppy food) should be feed in very small amounts frequently throughtout the day. Some patients do better with the food pureed into a liquid, while other do better with the food rolled into small meatballs. Water should also be offered in small amounts frequently. In patients that have trouble with liquid water, you can try offering a crushed ice slush.

The prognosis for canine megaesophagus is guarded, with a great deal depending on severity of disease, the dedication and cooperation of the affected patient’s family, and how effective the dog’s feeding and drinking habits can be regulated and monitored. As stated before, the most dangerous complication of canine megaesophagus is secondary aspiration pneumonia.


Roger L. Welton, DVM
Founder and Chief Editor,
President, Maybeck Animal Hospital

CEO, Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care

Article updated 5/21/2014

23 thoughts on “Megaesophagus in Dogs

  1. Brenda Cloar says:

    I have a little girl that come from shelter at 3 mos. old! Had her checked at our vet and took her home. the next day she was in distress and couldn’t breath. rushed her back the vet. long story short she has megaesophagus. she only weighed 2lbs. and 3 mos old. our vet, like you had never seen a pup with this, so he contacted a friend in Memphis and offered surgery. She was so small and sick I was afraid she wouldn’t make it and I started my own research. She is now 2 1/2 years old and weighs around 5lb and eats in a BAILEY CHAIR. Its been a struggle but she is a little fighter. lots more to this story but wanted to let you know about our little girl that is living with this terrible problem and was born with it.

  2. Amy Pine says:

    My little chiweenie pup was officially diagnosed at 7mos old, but showed great signs of ME at 4 months when we got her. She was regurgitating from day one. The vet said she was born with it. She is now doing really well because we know what to do to keep the food and water down. It’s taken a lot of patience and trial and error. We do have “bad” days every once in a while, but she’s mostly just a fun, spitfire of a pup at almost 2 years old now.

  3. nayoma Zeese says:

    Isn”t there anythingthat would shrink the esophagus back in place? if not why is surgery so highly impossible?

  4. My husky mix was diagnosed at 1 yr. Also epilepsy. I fed her half ounce meatballs while standing up on a table. It would be too large for a smaller dog but it worked well for her.water was also given elevated. She vomited about 10 to 15 times at least daily but actually learned to be happy until she caught pneumonia– at age 10 1/2 years 2 days ago

  5. Victoria says:

    I have that with my 1 year old dog its so frustrated

  6. jeannie says:

    should i expect good days and bad days

  7. Sandy & Kirk says:

    Our German Shepherd had 6 pups Oct 11 of last year. We sold 5 of the little beauties and we kept the 6th. He has been diagnoised with Megaesophagus. I noticed he was breathing quite rapidly when he was about 3 weeks old. His little neck kind of buldged out when he was breathing. Took him to our local vet and she did X-rays and a Barium swallow. He diagnoised him with PRAA. We followed up with a vet surgeon. He did a CT scan and told us Chico has ME and not PRAA. Chico does not regurgitate his food..(well he has only twice in his young life) I now feed him on a chair but will soon have to either purchase a Bailey Chair or find some other way to elevate his feedings. He seems to be doing very well.

  8. Donna Dunne says:

    We have a 4 mo golden doddle, very suspicious of mega esophagus to be confirmed when she is under anesthesia for spaying.she is 18 #,now was 3 @2mo. It has been a challenge we did puppy formula mixed like gruel then graduated to enriched dry on when ever. It seems to happen less when she is kept calm! Work in progress! Bowls elevated!

  9. Elaine says:

    I adopted Milly at 6 mths, diagnosed at 8 mths. Built a rustic Bailey chair and can only feed her twice daily . Ground dry food with water & 30 mins in chair. Now 3 yrs and at ideal weight of 10kg. Some less good days, but she’s happy and healthy.
    Elaine, Tenerife

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  12. Brian Uhl says:

    I had to make a feeding bowl for Brodie because he has this same issue. It’s worked very well for him and now I feed all the boys from this bowl. Take a look at it on my web page.

    His vet loves it! His lungs have been clear for over 3 years now. Wish everyone the best.

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  22. Mike McNeil says:

    I have a 10 month old Mini Schnauzer named Bella. She is a beautiful little puppy that we love with everything we have. My wife and 2 boys and myself understand she was given to us for a reason so we are trying to do all we can to give her a long and happy life. We feed in a high chair and she stays vertical for 15 minutes after each feeding (2 cans of soft puppy food 3 times a day). I can’t remember the last time she ate and threw up with-in 1-2-3 hours after. Our problems start when 1) she gets excited and barks a lot. That makes her choke, then cough then vomit. Needless to say we keep the blinds closed and her away from things that make her bark. 2) maybe 5 out of every 7 nights she will awake to what can only be seen as “heart burn”. She eats dinner between 6-8pm every night and goes to sleep with us around 10-11pm each night. It usually happens between the hours of 2am-5am and you can see its the heart burn that starts the problem, then she coughs, then she throws up but all that comes out is liquid contents from her stomach (and not a lot of that either). Boy, just a tiny bit of this will knock a horse out with its smell so I have to believe its acid from her stomach. Let me also mention that we give her Pepcid AC 1/2 to 3/4 tablet at each feeding (this is at the request of our Vet). I have tried giving her the Pepcid AC after she has the heartburn in the middle of the night but once she starts it doesn’t seem like anything can help her. In any case, does anyone else have this same issue? Her weight is great and she seems health and happy. The sleep loss is not only hurting her but also my wife and I are losing sleep and we each have professional jobs during the weekdays. In any case, ANY help/suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

    • Vivian says:


      Please go to this website. Also there are two wonderful groups on Facebook, Canine Megaesophagus support group, and Upright Canine Brigade – Megaesophagus Awareness and Support. There is a lot of great information at all 3 sites. The FB pages are filled with a lot of first hand knowledge of what works for people with ME dogs. A lot of vets only know text book information and really don’t know what works, but we live with it on a daily basis and learn what works and what doesn’t through trial and error. The people are as loving and as kind as the fur babies they care for and will help you in more ways than you could imagine.

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